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book review

Stories that read like a cross between Octavia Butler and Shirley Jackson

When Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You At Home” appeared in The New Yorker in October 2015, its first sentence served not only as an introduction to a mesmerizing short story, but the announcement of an astonishing writer whose words dare the heart and mind to remain unstirred.

“The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone.”

It is a tale of a childless young woman in Nigeria who fabricates one “living” infant from yarn, then another from hair, with harrowing results. That story, a National Magazine Award finalist, generated anticipation for Arimah’s next literary move, and she more than delivers with her electrifying debut, “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” a collection of short stories.

These are designed to leave marks. With its fluid blend of dark humor, sorrow, and excursions into magic realism, some of Arimah’s stories feel like a jazzy cross between Octavia Butler and Shirley Jackson. Yet there is nothing derivative here. Arimah’s writing is deliciously unpredictable whether she’s detailing a vengeful feud between the god of ants and goddess of rivers in the shattering “What is a Volcano?” or the born-to-be-blue protagonist of “Glory.” Her words throb with truth.


In the latter story, the titular character’s name is short for Glorybetogod, chosen by her Nigerian parents in the vain hope that their child would be imbued with Heaven’s grace. She becomes quite the opposite — perhaps not “rotten” as her sharp-tongued grandfather proclaims, but someone who would “err on the side of wrong, time and again.” It certainly doesn’t help her self-esteem that even Facebook, with its strict “real name” policy, keeps shutting down her page since flummoxed representatives refuse to believe anyone would burden a child with that impossible name.


Glory, like many of Arimah’s characters and the author herself, is Nigerian. Arimah was born in the UK, and spent parts of her childhood in Nigeria and the United States. Both in connection and dislocation, the weight of place is always present for those in these stories, whether characters reside in the African nation or reluctantly find themselves there.

That’s what happens in “Wild.” The insolent teenager, who narrates the story, is given a one-way ticket and sent to live with relatives in Lagos after her exasperated mother decides, “enough is enough.”

As the daughter explains “enough” includes “the time my mother, looking to treat a headache, found the Ecstasy I thought I’d cleverly hidden in an Excedrin bottle, and I came home to her making carpet angels. I joined and we laughed and laughed till she sobered up and the laughing stopped.” Within two sentences, Arimah moves from an unexpected burst of levity to joy flat-lining, and through the story she illustrates the dilemma of mothers struggling for authority with daughters fighting for autonomy.

In the title story, Arimah delves into dystopian science fiction, creating a society where people known as “Mathematicians” can, among other things, abolish grief — for a price. “Nneoma could feel the sadness rolling off of him and she knew if she focused she’d be able to see his grief, clear as a splinter. She would see the source of it, its architecture, and the way it anchored to him. And she would be able to remove it.” It’s a kind of compassion-for-cash transaction, and its emotional toll is fierce both for those who seek it and sell it.


Finely attuned to human frailty, Arimah doesn’t always feel a need to take sides. She has empathy for her characters, which isn’t the same thing as saying she endorses all of their perplexing choices. In this sharp, meticulous collection, Arimah is more concerned with the ways, for better or worse, people try to navigate love, the meaning of home, and the hard corners of their lives.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham